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Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils – The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology

Maltman wineThe important link between geology and wine is, on one level, rather obvious: geologists drink a lot of it.  It is also generally accepted that while geology is ‘everything to the grower’, in reality it is very little to the drinker.  As Alex Maltman points out in this jolly and enthusiastic book, appreciation of geology can add as much to vinous enjoyment as history enhances one’s enjoyment of a mediaeval cathedral.

But lately, back-ticket labels—even some wine names—increasingly reference geology.  The dustjacket, showing a collage of labels from wines called ‘Amphibole’, ‘Moraine’ and ‘Biotite’, makes this clear.  As with certain perpetrators of so-called ‘new nature-writing’, in much wine writing we see a stringing together of (often obsolete) geological vocabulary like beads on a string, just to be pretty and not to convey any meaning.   

Geologists should rejoice, because this trend evinces warm feelings towards their subject in the heart of the oenophile public.  But often they wince. They know it’s impossible to taste the slate or the flint, simply because rocks are insoluble.  They know the ‘iodine’, which certain pundits pretend to detect in Chablis, can only be a metaphor, and certainly cannot derive from fossil molluscs.  But unfounded belief in geological taste descriptors as ‘actual’ rather than ‘metaphorical’ seems to be tenacious. 

Revulsion at this sort of thing turns some geologists into tiresome ‘anti-terroiristes’ who suspect that ‘terroir’ as a concept is all magical nonsense, and that everything is vinification.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between and thankfully, Maltman is not so reductionist.  But he is at great pains to explain how—and why—the wine-geology pudding is so often over-egged in popular wine literature.

PR is about warm feelings; education about conveyancing knowledge, which often (indeed, usually) has the reverse effect.  If I have reservations about this book—apart from its anaemic index—it is wondering who should buy it.  The first 140 pages are a good and comprehensive textbook of geology—from cation exchange to plate tectonics—seen through a glass, with occasional references to wine regions worldwide.  Only when geomorphology makes an appearance (chapter 8) does it get into its stride; and the best passages come at the end, when relationships between rocks, geology, wine and wine terminology are truly discussed.  But I found this a little unbalanced, like a joke whose punchline doesn’t quite justify the laborious build-up.

There is far more science in here than any normally arranged person can be expected to stomach; and being education, it has to begin at the beginning, which is to say, very far indeed from the matter in hand.  That’s education for you.  It assumes the audience is captive, which is why its storyboarding is really rubbish.  Most geologists will not learn much geology, but most non-geologists will find it all a bit too much. 

Nevertheless I would recommend it as a fantastic and improving Christmas present for any vinous rockhound, who will find much to savour throughout.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

VINEYARDS, ROCKS, AND SOILS – THE WINE LOVER’S GUIDE TO GEOLOGY by ALEX MALTMAN 2018 Oxford University Press ISBN: 978-0190863289 List price: £26.99 234pp, hbk. W: